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Senior Member
Username: rami

Post Number: 540
Registered: 6-2002
Posted on Sunday, March 26, 2006 - 7:53 pm:   Edit Post

I once heard from a very unreliable source that a satin finish allows the wood to breathe better and thus has an effect on the tone of an instrument. Logically, this seems to make sense. I always liked the satin finish for how it feels to the touch and the high gloss finish for its look. I think all my Alembics sound great, but I never considered the finish as a factor.
Senior Member
Username: jlpicard

Post Number: 408
Registered: 7-2002
Posted on Sunday, March 26, 2006 - 10:21 pm:   Edit Post

I believe the thinking is that of a thinner finish like on an acoustic guitar having an effect on tone, but on most Alembics the satin is just the same polyester finish that has not been rubbed out to a high gloss. Also on acoustic instruments it isn't a question of the wood breathing better but that the thin finish does not impede the motion of the top as much. I don't believe you would really want the wood to "breathe" any better than it already does as this would make it more suseptable to moisture gain/loss with changing climatic conditions. Rami, Talk to an owner of a Brown Bass and see what they have to say about the oil finish vs. the polyester. Mike

(Message edited by jlpicard on March 26, 2006)
Senior Member
Username: bob

Post Number: 601
Registered: 11-2002
Posted on Sunday, March 26, 2006 - 11:03 pm:   Edit Post

It's an interesting question, Rami - and probably very complicated.

Certainly in the world of acoustic guitars, violins, etc., there are quite a few people that will insist the finish makes a difference, and I'm strongly inclined to agree. However, I'll go out on a limb here and assume that your question pertains to the finish on a solid body Alembic (and a bass, for that matter).

Let's assume the finish (or "paint", as Mica prefers) is identical, and the question is whether it ends up satin or gloss. Now, we know that Alembic will make a gloss instrument with a satin neck, so how do the do that? It could be either (a) they buff everything out to gloss, and then rough up the neck a bit, or (b) they sand everything to an even level, say 1000 grit or so, but then only buff the body and not the neck.

I really don't know what they do (and am curious). But it seems like (b) would be less work, so let's assume that for a moment. In this case, the finish on the glossy part would end up slightly thinner than the satin, because it's taken down more. In general, you could stop at satin, or proceed to make it glossy, and the glossy finish should end up thinner - which seems like it would be less of a "seal", in terms of breathing.

However, a reliable source (experimental physicist) has explained to me on several occasions (usually while we're refinishing the bottom of his sailboat...) that at the microscopic level, there is an important difference between sanding and polishing. If you think of the surface as a bunch of sharp mountains and valleys, sanding mostly cuts off the tops of the mountains. In contrast, polishing is more like a bulldozer, pushing the tips of the mountains down to fill in the valleys.

So if you buy that, then a gloss finish could actually provide more of a seal, even if it is marginally thinner than stopping while it's satin. But putting aside the obscure theory, in reality Alembic seems to put on so many coats of finish that I seriously doubt there is a difference in "seal" between a satin and gloss finish.

So what do we mean by "seal"? Certainly, even a gloss finish does not provide a complete moisture/vapor barrier - over time, the woods will dry out, and you can see this in the differential shrinkage that occurs, e.g. between the maple and ebony neck lams.

But that may be a long term effect, and in terms of tonal characterstics, the question is more whether extremely short term vibrations of the wood, can "express themselves" (bleed through) the finish. And if so, would it be enough to really affect the tone?

I'll put a stake in the ground here. My best guess is that if you had two identical instruments, one entirely satin and one gloss, you would not be able to hear the difference. I'm assuming here that the finish is sufficiently thick that the mountain/valley thing doesn't matter.

The more interesting case to me is whether an oil finish would sound different. Here I think the answer is "maybe". The usual finish is essentially adding a coat of plastic, which you might think of as almost an extra laminate or something. It seems likely that it will somehow affect the resonance, perhaps by increasing reflections within the body, for certain frequencies, or something (I'm just making this up, of course). If there is some effect here, I doubt it matters whether it is satin or gloss, only whether you have that extra coating.

True, an oil finish (such as tung oil) should help fill and stabilize the surface of the wood, but much less so than the usual stuff, and clearly it will allow the wood to dry out more quickly (breathe) if not properly maintained.

So I don't know what it means, it's just an interesting question to me, and fun to think about. My personal opinion/best guess is that if you're going to put the usual finish, on a solid body Alembic bass, then you probably won't be able to tell whether it's satin or gloss, except by feel.

That may also be the case, comparing oil or gloss (I think it's some sort of polyester, but I'm too lazy to look that up right now).

For me personally, what matters here is that with oil, the wood just feels more alive and natural to me, and I think that as a result I interact with it differently. As to whether the wood is actually breathing, in time with the music, I really can't say.

[edited to add the following]

Took me too long, and I think I like Mike/jlpicard's answer better - short and to the point.

As Mike says, I think it matters much more in the case of an acoustic instrument, and it's probably less a case of breathing, and more a matter of inhibiting motion.

Even so, I'm still inclined to believe that finish can make a tonal difference on a solid bodied instrument, assuming it's thick enough. But I doubt it matters whether it's satin or gloss.

(Message edited by bob on March 26, 2006)
Advanced Member
Username: byoung

Post Number: 241
Registered: 12-2004
Posted on Monday, March 27, 2006 - 6:48 am:   Edit Post

If we're talking about a satin finish on an Alembic (not oil/wax), then I think it's fairly safe to assume that the thirty coats or so of paint are going to impede "breathing".

Senior Member
Username: rami

Post Number: 541
Registered: 6-2002
Posted on Tuesday, March 28, 2006 - 4:55 pm:   Edit Post

I once heard that one of the secrets of the sound of the Stradivarius violin lies in the recipe of its finish. I think that the resonance of the wood changing over time due to drying and exposure to temperature and humidity may in some way be accelerated by the degree of how the finish seals it. I guess the best way to test the theory would be to have two identical instruments made - preferably from the same stock of wood and finish one in satin and the other in gloss and keep them side by side through similar experiences. Then wait twenty years and find an objective person (with a finely tuned musical ear) who has never heard them before to describe their tonal difference.
Username: tbrannon

Post Number: 52
Registered: 11-2004
Posted on Tuesday, March 28, 2006 - 6:28 pm:   Edit Post

If someone would be kind enough to fund the construction of two Series II basses (walnut tops/ebony neck lams please), one with a satin finish and one with a gloss finish, I would be kind enough to act as caretaker for said basses for the next 20 or so years. =)


(Message edited by tbrannon on March 28, 2006)
Senior Member
Username: richbass939

Post Number: 591
Registered: 11-2004
Posted on Tuesday, March 28, 2006 - 8:10 pm:   Edit Post

I'm no expert on acoustic instruments but I have had many conversations with my father-in-law (a violin luthier who made 53 violins) about violin construction. He said that the most important materials factor is the varnish. Second, is the tone wood and carving of the top (traditionally spruce or pine is used).
The varnish formula has always been a closely guarded secret. There is even some doubt that a Stradivari family member has the true formula. It may have died with the master. As far as I know, nobody knows for sure. One thing that has been recently discovered is that very finely ground semi-precious gemstones have been discovered in the varnishes of old master violins. Scientists have begged tiny chips of varnish from people who have been given master violins to repair. The samples have been studied under electron microscopes and these discoveries have been made. Still, these discoveries have not enabled modern luthiers to make new violins with the qualities of the masterpieces of the late-1600s and early-1700s.
I suppose the balance of art vs. science still leans in the art direction. Personally, I'm just as happy with the art angle. I would hate to see some discovery that allowed scientists, chemists, and factory robots recreate Stradivari violins.
Senior Member
Username: bob

Post Number: 605
Registered: 11-2002
Posted on Tuesday, March 28, 2006 - 11:32 pm:   Edit Post

If you do a little searching here, on Stradivarius or violin or something, you should turn up some interesting stuff from a year or so back. I recall an interesting paper someone linked to, which pointed out that virtually all of the known Stradivaris still in existence have been refinished (and in fact nearly all have also had their headstocks replaced, and maybe necks as well) - yet they still sound different. Fascinating stuff.

Okay, here's the thread, scroll up three messages or so and look at the article linked to by Moder Dave.
Advanced Member
Username: keith_h

Post Number: 373
Registered: 2-2005
Posted on Wednesday, March 29, 2006 - 5:56 am:   Edit Post

I saw a show on PBS that attributed the sound more to the wood. As I recall the woods all had tighter grain attributed to the Little Ice Age. The opinion was this tighter grain in the body was the important item and the only constant throughout the instruments life.

Advanced Member
Username: jazzyvee

Post Number: 389
Registered: 6-2002
Posted on Wednesday, March 29, 2006 - 10:54 pm:   Edit Post

I have an orion guitar which has a matt finish, its started to shine up since I've started playing it over the past few months.
Do you know how I can get the matt finish back?
Senior Member
Username: jacko

Post Number: 586
Registered: 10-2002
Posted on Thursday, March 30, 2006 - 6:24 am:   Edit Post

Brillo Pad.

Just Kidding;-) I have the same issue on my Epic around the elbow contour and I'm pretty sure I've seen a post from Mica saying that this was the reason they stopped using the matt finish altogether as it polished up too easily.
You might end up having to send the guitar to a decent luthier to get it refinished.

Intermediate Member
Username: olieoliver

Post Number: 168
Registered: 2-2006
Posted on Thursday, March 30, 2006 - 8:17 am:   Edit Post

I read an article somewhere that the decline in the oxygen level in the atmosphere, combined with pollutents in the air have affected the wood in the trees over the last 70+ years. It was really interesting in the fact that it stated this caused for cool wood grains which are desirable but also made for a less dense wood which affects the tone and sustain. I'll try to find the link and post it here.
Advanced Member
Username: jazzyvee

Post Number: 390
Registered: 6-2002
Posted on Thursday, March 30, 2006 - 10:55 am:   Edit Post

Hmm thats a shame Jacko as I do like the matt finish on the guitar.

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